In 1909 there was a meat shortage (what? no bison?) in the United States and an invasive species clogged the waterways of the southeast. Louisiana Congressman Robert F. Broussard introduced a bill that would have imported hippos to solve both problems. The bill failed to pass. This much is true. In the United States of Sara Gailey’s novella, River of Teeth, the bill became law. Hippos have changed the landscape and culture of the southeast.
Winslow Houndstooth is an elegant gentleman of fortune, a queer British-Korean hippopotamus wrangler in the swamps of Georgia. He just can’t resist a handsome blue-eyed man. Or green-eyed. Or brown-eyed, for that matter.
His true love though is Ruby, his Cambridge Black hippopotamus with gold-plated tusks. She is dark and fierce. Bread for stealth. Together Houndstooth and Ruby work the the marshes wrangling wayward hippos. But a new job is on offer, clearing the feral hippos out of the Mississippi. And the money is enough to retire on. Plus the gig is sweetened by the opportunity for revenge. Houndstooth might finally right a shocking wrong smoldering in his heart for decades. But first he must assemble his crew:
- Miss Archambault, Archie to her intimates, a fully-figured seductress with the nimble fingers of a thief who rides a three-thousand pound albino hippo named Rosa. She also can’t resist a blue-eyed peach of a youth either, preferably one with a rich father.
- Hero, who uses the pronoun they, is just the demolitions expert that Houndstooth needs. They ride a Standard Grey named Abigail who is smart as a whip. Hero will not tell you right out if the sweet tea they offer you is poisoned or not, though they do think this is the hottest summer Louisiana in years.
- Adelia Reyes is hugely pregnant, an accomplished assassin, and rides Stasia, a hyper aggressive Arnesian Brown. Without a saddle, thank you very much.
- Then there is Calhoun Hotchkiss, a great shot but an insufferable cad.
The Mississippi they must clear of raging ferals is no longer a river, rather something between a lake and a marsh called the Harriet. Trevor runs it, and his riverboat gambling establishments are an empire in and of themselves. Cheats, and maybe a few others who run awry of the notorious Mr. Trevor, get thrown to the feral hippos in the water without a second thought.
Once this disparate cast is assembled the plot takes one unexpected turn after another, with intrigue, romance, double crosses, and twists of fate. “The River of Teeth” is a heist caper (ah - I mean operation - sorry Mr. Houndstooth) with an ingenious and enterprising crew bent on gender fluid hijinks. Once you enter author Sarah Gailey’s wild world, you will never look at hippos the same way again. Luckily readers will ride with the hippos again when the sequel, A Taste of Marrow, comes out this September. Meanwhile, this novella is also Hugo-nominated.
Theses two stories, though they couldn’t be more different in terms of setting, both feature reflections on the end of a life. Two sets of characters question what is worth doing with the tiny bit of time we have.
In “The Last Novelist,” Reuth Bryan Diaso, author of fourteen novels and eighty-seven short stories, is dying. He has decided to hole up on an idyllic planetary paradise to write one final novel and then expire. Rueth is sad that no one in the universe pays attention to authors anymore—it’s all “sense-folk” sharing their mundane experiences directly to their multitudes of followers via neural uplinks.
At times the setting and setup are cringe-inducing. Rueth’s an old ex-pat, living in a house on a beach, shaded by palm trees, surrounded by fields of sugarcane, where the occasional hip-swishing native women speak pidgin. “Alle-roit,” says one, swishing off. “You kayn know ’less you ask.”
After settling in, Rueth encounters a precocious child, native to this paradise world, who calls herself Fish. She is fascinated by this odd “writing” activity that Rueth does, and she insists that he teach her everything he knows. Fish’s precocious curiosity and enthusiasm inspire Rueth. She has a gift for drawing, and before long she is illustrating Rueth’s novel and learning how to typeset.
Kressel writes that his story is about practicing one’s art for art’s sake, continuing to write even when there is no audience, and when other worries, like mortality, vie for the artist’s attention. In the action of the story Rueth finds meaning and validation in passing his knowledge, and his unfinished manuscript, on to Fish.
In “Carnival Nine,” author Yoachim creates a clockwork world where the invisible maker gives each character a mainspring at birth and then turns it every night while they sleep. We follow the life of Zee, from childhood to death. Zee is lucky; she has a good mainspring that can hold up to fifty-two turns. Others are less fortunate. Zee’s father has only enough turns to care for his aging parents, without enough left over to take Zee to the clockwork zoo on the far side of the closet.
Each character makes heart-wrenching choices in deciding how to use the painfully finite energy they’ve been given. As an allegorical tale, it’s another poignant illustration of Christine Miserandino’s spoon theory. In 2003, Miserandino used spoons as a visual aid to explain what it was like living with Lupus, each spoon representing a bit of energy that she must portion out strategically if she is to make it to the end of the day.
In “Carnival Nine,” the energetic Zee visits one of the carnival trains that travel on tracks throughout the house-world. She falls in love with a carnie on the Carnival Nine train, and relishes their adventurous life together. They make a child, but something is wrong with the mainspring he is given. It can only hold four turns. The decisions Zee and her spouse make in how to spend their precious turns, and care for, or neglect, their son drive the rest of the story. In the end Zee reflects on her life, trying to decide if she lived it well.
The claustrophobic feeling of the finite is present and pressing in both of these stories. Both examine the end of a life, looking back on choices and losses. The number of choices each character has left dwindle hour by hour, each decision carrying more weight. Mortality’s absolute limit rings through every sentence. Yet each protagonist takes comfort in the child to whom they have given their time and their talent. These two tales serve a main course of melancholy, but, in the end, the children that carry on into the future leave the reader with a small sip of hope.